Children need Fairy Tales – a Plea for Santa

I recently had a conversation with a dear friend and colleague with the propensity to second-guess herself. The occasion was this year’s December 6th – traditionally her family’s day to celebrate Saint Nicklaus Day with friends. On those occasions, my friend’s neighbor appeared as Santa to both her children (who are eight and six years old, by the way). The older son grew increasingly suspicious because it had occurred to him that the neighbor always showed up late because something urgent had come up and therefore he “missed” Santa’s visit. “I bet there is no Santa Claus, that is probably Christian from next door”, he self-importantly told his little sister.

It was important to my friend to maintain the illusion for her little daughter for a little while longer and thus this year the husband of a friend took Christian’s place and appeared in the Santa Claus costume. So, when this year on December 6 someone knocked on the door and this time Christian had unexpectedly showed up on time and was sitting at the table when Santa appeared the little girl triumphantly exclaimed “see, Christian from next door is not Santa!” The big boy was initially dumbfounded, started to think long and hard, gave Santa a second long look and suddenly exclaimed: “I know you, you are ……….“ My friend took him to the side asked him not to spoil things for his little sister, she would explain everything later. After the celebration she sat down with him and confessed that he had been right and that Santa had been her friend’s husband. Her son looked at her for a moment and his eyes filled with tears: “But Mama, then Santa was never real?” “No”, she admitted, “as you had already suspected, in the past it was Christian.”
As my friend told me the story she had tears in her own eyes because her son’s reaction had touched her. Now she reproached herself because she had not told him the truth a long time ago and was concerned about the damage this experience had left with him – after all, he had just discovered that his parents had lied to him all along, no? Just a few days ago, she had launched into a little sermon that he was not supposed to lie to her when he had done something he shouldn’t have. Should she have ever begun with that entire nonsense? She had meant well – did she do the wrong thing?

This question stayed with me for quite some time. I remembered how my brother, a dyed in the wool old member of the 1968 generation had applied the corresponding opinions regarding upbringing, fairy tales and Christmas commercialism when dealing with his first son: Lukas attended an alternative Kindergarten where mystifications and stuff like that was not part of the agenda. Those children obviously also had contact with children from more “conventional” families and the began to increasingly complain when they noticed that other children found sweets outside the door in their boots or when St. Nick had brought gifts for them to the Kindergarten on December 6th. They wondered, why not for them? In light of this moral dilemma the parents got together and decided on the following solution: One of the volunteers working at the Kindergarten showed up on 6 December carrying Santa’s costume, dressed up in the presence of the children, distributed the gifts and afterwards again changed in the presence of the children. The idea was that the children should be aware that the entire thing was just a funny charade and thus be protected from “harmful” myths.

I already thought then that the entire idea was rather silly and the four-year old Lukas proved that I had been right. Right before Christmas he accompanied my mother and myself to a tree farm in order to select a Christmas tree. All of a sudden a Santa walked by and gave all the children in the vicinity small bags with sweets – Lukas was naturally one of them. He accepted the little bag, looked after the benefactor as he continued his rounds and after quite a while of silence he suddenly beamed at my mother: “Oma, maybe this was the real St. Nick, after all?!”

Motivated by my musings I recently pulled the book „The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales“ by the famous child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim off the shelf. Among other things he writes:

"Just because life is often bewildering, the child needs even more to be given the chance to understand himself in this complex world with which he must learn to cope. To be able to do so, the child must be helped to make some coherent sense out of the turmoil of his feelings. He needs ideas on how to bring his inner house into order, and on that basis be able to create order in his life. He needs (..) a moral education with subtly, and by implication only, conveys to him the advantages of moral behavior, not through abstract ethical concepts but through that which seems tangibly right and therefore meaningful to him. The child finds this kind of meaning through fairy tales. (..) .

The child asks himself: ,Who am I? Where did I come from? How did the world come into being? What is the purpose of life?‘ (..) He wonders who or what projects him into adversity and what can prevent this from happening to him. Are there benevolent powers in addition to his parents? Are his parents benevolent powers? How should he form himself, and why? Is there hope for him, though he may have done wrong? (..).

Fairy tales provide answers to these pressing questions, many of which the child becomes aware of only as he follows the stories. From an adult point of view and in terms of modern science, the answers which fairy stories offer are fantastic rather than true. As a matter of fact, these solutions seem so incorrect to many adults - who have become estranged from the ways in which young people experience the world - that they object to exposing children to such ‘false‘ information. However, realistic explanations are usually incomprehensible to children, because they lack the abstract understanding required to make sense of them. (..).

It is therefore important to remember that only statements which are intelligible in terms of the child‘s existing knowledge and emotional preoccupations carry conviction for him. (..) True, the notion of a sheltering sky-mother can be limiting to the mind if clung to for too long. Neither infantile projections nor dependence on imaginary protectors - such as a guardian angel who watches out for one when one is asleep, or during Mother‘s absence - offers true security; but as long as on cannot provide complete security for oneself, imaginings and projections are far preferable to no security. It is such (partly imagined) security which, when experienced for a sufficient length of time, permits the child to develop that feeling of confidence in life which he needs in order to trust himself.“

I thought that might well be it! I am not worried about the boy who was just confronted by the truth. That which caused his eyes to tear up was surely primarily the feeling to see something beautiful and mysterious deprived of its magic – and that does leave us humans regardless of our age with that vague feeling of sorrow and loss. I believe Peter Rosegger has described that beautifully in his memoirs. As a little boy he had accompanied his mother to a wake for a young girl. He tells the story:

“As we arrived at a small clearing, my mother looked to the sky, held a hand over her eyes and said: ‘Now one can see it clearly, the spinning wheel of our Sainted Lady.’ She meant the moon that was projecting those delicate filaments of light among the treetops and branches. Then my mother turned to me: ‘You have good eyes, my boy. Look into the moon because that is where our Sainted Lady sits and spins. Today she is spinning a heavenly dress for the little girl on the way to her grave. And look some more – your ancestor sits next to her!’ Indeed, then I saw it – two beautiful women sitting in the moon at the wheel” Much later his father gave him a telescope and when the boy looks at the moon with it he asks himself why he can’t see the two women. “Then a cousin told me about the moon’s natural history. – What do I have now? A frozen, dead, burned-out celestial body without warmth, without smiles. Not even the light is its own.”

In the course of our lives none of us is probably lacking these experiences – and that is good that way because – as Bettelheim says - getting stuck in fairy tales and myths for too long naturally inhibits further development. However, does that mean that one best keep it totally away from our children in order to spare them disillusionment just so we are not seen as being untrustworthy? Based on this point of view one would not be permitted to read children’s stories, no Little Red Riding Hood (who has ever met a speaking wolf in the real world?), one would have to ban Cinderella from the DVD shelf and the library and while one is at it, the “Sagas of Classic Antiquity”, as well! And how about religious elements? Do they sufficiently stand up to critical examination – or do I have to explain to my child that this thing about 24 December resembles a “Christian contrast event” to ancient pagan festivals around this particular date? And I almost forgot – no more “Star Wars” for the kids. From now on only facts, facts, facts for the ears of children?

I don’t believe in that. I don’t believe that this world already sufficiently confusing and scary for us grownups could even be endured without a little magic for our children. After all, it frequently doesn’t even work for us – or why else does the so often left for dead phantasy-genre experience a revival of flights of fancy? And why do otherwise rational and totally mature folks sit year after year and with fascination watch the inevitable Christmas movie “Miracle on 34th Street”? And this issue about lying, does it really apply – is it true that everything Saint Nicklaus, Baby Jesus and the Guardian Angel stand for is really a lie? That someone is out there who cares for the child and who accompanies it with love and care? Who is concerned about its needs and wishes? Who watches over it whatever it does, wherever it is? Who is reliably there for it (year after year)? Someone with authority and strength who’ll protect it at any cost? I would think, with lacking that in its life, the child faces considerably more serious problems than the disappointment about a Santa Claus with his cover blown. And even if that were the case, at one time or the other it’ll understand that his childhood’s Santa was real after all . . . in a very special way.

The following correspondence between little Virginia O’Hanlon and the editor of the newspaper the “Sun”, Francis P. Church dates back to 1897. Until the demise of the “Sun” in 1950 it appeared every year during Christmas on the paper’s front page.

The eight-year-old Virginia from New York wanted to know the truth. So she wrote a letter to the daily paper “Sun”:

„Dear Editor—
I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, “If you see it in The Sun, it is so.” Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?
Virginia O’Hanlon“

Francis P. Church responded to her:

„Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours, man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! How dreary would be the world without a Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished..

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies. You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if you did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and invisible in the world..

You tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived could tear apart. Only faith, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding..

No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.“

Have yourself a merry, enchanting Christmas!